Go Set a Watchman: A Novel

New Price:
Used Price:

Mentioned in:

Advice to Young Writers on the Eve of Wrestlemania

 

A while back, I gave a reading for Little Salon, a Washington, DC arts event that takes place in the comfort of someone’s living room. I read a poem called “Stroke Diary,” and I told the audience that the poem was very personal, as it attempts to capture the minute-by-minute unfolding of my wife’s 2009 stroke at the age of 27 and the paranoia that followed such an unexpected medical event.  

During the Q&A afterwards, I was asked how much of my work was autobiographical—the dreaded question. I answered that the “I” in the poems was, most times, actually me, but at the same time not really me. Instead, they were a version of me. Everything is both true and not true at once. Which naturally got me thinking about professional wrestling. 

What’s been most interesting to audiences in professional wrestling across the last two decades has been when and how the WWE writers integrate truth and storytelling. The fans are in on this. There are hundreds of “news” sites and Twitter accounts that spin out rumors from backstage—so-and-so doesn’t like this guy, this person’s contract is about to be up, this guy is losing so much because he failed a drug test, etc.—and I eat it all up along with millions of other people.  

As a fan, wrestling is best when those real-life factors get pulled into the on-screen drama. In a world that is so heightened and artificial, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has succeeded most when material from real life is mixed in subtly for those in-the-know, and the writers and performers can make the audience ask, wait, was that real? Just YouTube CM Punk’s top of the ramp pipebomb that closed out a 2011 Monday Night Raw to see what I mean. Where’s the line between the truth in employee Phil Brooks’s head and the fiction of wrestler CM Punk’s delivery? It’s like trying to separate the dancer from the dance. 

So how does this relate to the work of writing fiction and poetry? The principles of combining what’s real and what’s fake are the backbone of good storytelling. Here are a few things that you always hear about writing, advice that has become as cliché as a knocked-out ref during a title match pin, but with a few tweaks straight out of the world of pro wrestling.  

Write What You Know 

When you look back at the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the biggest Superstar WWE has ever had, his real rise begins in Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). After being released from World Championship Wrestling (WCW), Austin was frustrated. He felt held down and held back. He knew what he was feeling, even if he didn’t know what was going to happen next. He channeled that emotion into his promos to transform from the Hollywood Blonde Stunning Steve Austin of WCW to the pissed-off Texas rattlesnake Stone Cold Steve Austin that we all know and love. It was the emotion behind Austin’s antics—the aggression, the hatred for one’s boss, the take-no-shit attitude—that defined him and helped him connect with fans, even more so than stompin’ mud holes in the competition.  

Your own life is where your most meaningful material comes from and where your weird obsessions, like wrestling, can be an advantage. If you work in healthcare for your day job, all of your stories don’t have to be about diseases and doctor’s offices. Maybe your grandma just died and that’s very sad, but a story about a dying grandma might not be that interesting. Instead, think of what the experience of losing a loved one has taught you. Now that you know what grief is, someday when you’re writing a story in which someone loses something or someone very important to them (grandma or no), you’ll know how to capture it, what metaphors to use, what images stay with you, what rings true.  

When novelist Tananarive Due’s relationship with a boyfriend ended in deception and feelings of betrayal, she used the experience to write My Soul to Keep. In the book, a young journalist (as Due was at the time) discovers her husband has been keeping secrets. [Spoiler alert] It turns out he’s a soulless cult member who needs to kill people to maintain his immortality. Due used what she knew of the stain of bad relationships and duplicity to create a stunning imaginative work. There are some things you have to learn the hard way. Use the emotional and behavioral truth of those things in your writing, not necessarily the real-world fact-truth.  

Know What’s Interesting to Your Readers 

The best wrestling gimmicks are when you have a version of the real person turned up to 11. Sometimes it takes a few iterations to really get working. The best example of this is The Rock. When he debuted as Rocky Maivia, the idea was to highlight his heritage from the famous Maivia wrestling family. He was a goofy-looking, grinning good guy. After struggling for a while in arenas full of “Die Rocky Die” chants, he was eventually added to the Nation of Domination, a bad guy stable, and only then, when he got the mic in his hand and was able to show off his quick wit and intensity, did people really take notice.  

The moral? You’ve got to know your role and shut your mouth until you have something interesting to say.  

Continuing with the dead grandma from above, sometimes things happen and they have a great impact on our lives, but they are completely uninteresting to other people. Young writers often spend a long time figuring this out. Drug stories are very rarely interesting. I-got-drunk-with-my-friends stories are almost never interesting. Cut through all those ideas and find the root of the conflict. Give your characters and speakers passions and ideas that are legitimately interesting and surprising to readers. You’ve got to figure out what you can say that no one else can say. 

It doesn’t matter that the Rock comes from a family of Hall of Fame in-ring performers. What’s interesting about the Rock is his mouth (and his eyebrow). Both versions of Dwayne Johnson’s character are true, to a degree. The reflect different parts of him. It’s just a matter of figuring out which parts of yourself and your writing will make people take notice. 

If you need an example of this from the literary world, look no further than Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird is a beloved classic. Go Set A Watchman, not so much. Despite being marketed as a sequel, Watchman is reads much more as an early draft of Mockingbird. In the intervening time between the drafts, Lee, with the help of her editor, figured out what was really interesting about the story. She shifted the entire thing back into Scout’s childhood. She dropped or massaged many aspects of the various characters. She introduced more structure. She did all of these things in service to the reader, to make them fall in love with the people and the town, to create a story that would hold their interest. 

Make It New 

Perhaps you remember the love story of Macho Man Randy Savage and his manager Miss Elizabeth, which culminated in their in-ring wedding billed as “The Match Made in Heaven” at SummerSlam in 1991? In reality, Savage and Elizabeth had been married off-screen since 1984. The chemistry was real. Savage, who was notoriously jealous and possessive in real life, played the same character on television as the likes of Honky Tonk Man, George “The Animal” Steele, and Ric Flair all made advances on Elizabeth. At times, Savage’s over-protectiveness got the better of him, such as when he accused Hulk Hogan, his Mega Powers tag-team partner, of having eyes for Elizabeth. Hogan maintained they were just friends.  

In reality, at the time of their wrestling wedding, Savage and Elizabeth were already headed for divorce, which would be finalized in 1992, only a year after their “wedding.” Maybe it was portentous that the “Match Made in Heaven” was interrupted by Jake “The Snake” Roberts and The Undertaker? They knew it wasn’t going to work out. Maybe the whole wedding storyline was an attempt to rekindle Savage and Elizabeth’s off-screen relationship in a time of trouble? Either way, the pain of the real-life relationship was transformed into possibly the most important love story in wrestling. Macho Man and Miss Elizabeth is WWE’s “Romeo and Juliet.” 

So, shape truth into art. This is what wrestling does better than most writers just starting out. Take that truth that you know is interesting and apply your artistic skills—your language, your storytelling—and make it something completely new. That’s the art—not reinventing forms or innovating new styles, but taking life, digesting it, applying your skills as a writer, and making it something that is transformative. You know, like the WWE does. 

Then again, some of us have greatness thrust upon us. I’ve heard Tim O’Brien say he would have always been a writer, but the Vietnam War gave him something to write about. I think it’s much the same for Vince McMahon, owner of the WWE. He had always been an on-screen personality, most often as announcer, but in 1997 the “Montreal Screwjob” would give him the chance to be a SuperStar.  

Bret Hart was the champion, but he and Vince were unable to reach a contract agreement and so Bret was to leave shortly for WWE’s biggest competitor, WCW. Bret claims he was willing to drop the belt before leaving, but refused to lose to Shawn Michaels, his bitter rival, in Hart’s home country of Canada. He suggested losing to Michaels the next night when they returned to the States. McMahon was worried that Hart would not follow through on this promise, taking WWE’s top championship with him to another promotion, so a secret plan was hatched to ensure that Hart would not walk out of Survivor Series in Montreal as champion. 

Wrestling, and writing for the most part, is fake. We all know that. It’s truth through make-believe. The matches have pre-determined outcomes and everyone works together to tell the story. In this case, however, one person was left in the dark. At the climax of the match, Shawn Michaels put Bret Hart in Hart’s own trademark submission maneuver. The referee immediately called for the bell to stop the match even though Hart had not tapped out. Michaels grabbed the belt and retreated to backstage. An enraged Hart trashed the ringside area, spit on Vince McMahon, and signed to the crowd “WCW.” Real life came crashing into the ring, and to this day it’s the most talked-about moment in wrestling history.

Coming out of the Montreal Screwjob, McMahon knew that everyone hated him for what he had done. His employees felt betrayed. His audience was confused. How could he write his way out of this one? By making himself the villain. Announcer Vince became Mr. McMahon, the evil boss everyone loves to hate. This character turn created the “Attitude Era,” the height of WWE’s popularity, and gave Stone Cold Steve Austin’s working man the perfect foil to in his manipulative, vindictive boss. Vince and his writing team took the real life drama of losing his biggest star and made it new, revolutionizing the business in the process. 

Ezra Pound may have championed modernism with the slogan “Make it new,” but in order to make “it” new, we have to recognize the “it” was already there. We have to take the existing material and renovate it, reimagine it, change it from “it” into something “new.” Material or inspiration is all around us in our real lives. If you’re alive, it’s there. A creative writer sees that material and she adapts it. She takes what’s there and makes it new. 

Each year, Wrestlemania offers the climax of various WWE storylines that have been at play. Will the underdog finally win the championship? Or will the dastardly villain succeed? Will someone from our past come back to save us? Will someone be betrayed? Will that cocky heel get what’s coming to him? Will the individual defeat the corporation? Will someone defeat the undefeated?  

Will these stories move us or fall flat? It all depends on the creative staff getting the fundamentals right. The same can be said for all of us writers. We need to draw from our experience, find the most interesting parts, and transform them into compelling stories. No matter how ambitious our project, it’s these basic underpinnings of the craft that keep a piece of writing strong, that create emotion in a reader, and that ultimately let us have our Wrestlemania moment.  

Judging Books by Their Covers 2016: US vs. UK

The London Book Fair starts on April 12th. As a kick off, we thought it would be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. covers of a few notable titles from last year, a task previously taken on by our much-loved outgoing editor, Mr. Max Magee.

I’ve lived in both the U.S. and the U.K. and always felt that if I could pinpoint the reason why the soap operas are so different — the kleenex-lensed, pearly hues of The Young and the Restless vs. the gruff, flattened grays of East Enders as one example — or articulate why marmite sandwiches appeal in one place when peanut butter and jelly is preferred in the other, I would finally understand where the two cultures divide.

Sometimes I look to book covers in an attempt for clarity. Why is a cover in the U.S. replaced with another in the U.K. when the words inside are exactly the same? I may not like marmite, but I do have a taste for books. I sat down to see if I could finally develop the overarching theory that has eluded me so far.

It’s notable that many covers are the same. Some of the biggest books, like Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels sport the same jackets in the U.S. and U.K. “It often comes down to differences in cultures and tastes. What appeals to people in one country doesn’t appeal to others,” says my literary agent, Denise Bukowski. “But if the book has been published first in one country and has been successful there, subsequent publishers often choose to capitalize on that success by using the original cover.”

But many others titles still have completely different covers, which is fortunate as it means there is still plenty for us to argue about.

Below I present just a few of the choice examples. U.S. covers are on the left. U.K. covers are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis, baseless opinions, and sweeping generalizations are encouraged in the comments.

  Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

These covers are intriguingly similar and yet so different. Swirls vs. angles, blues vs. reds, swishes vs. swipes, almost like a mirror of the two halves of the book, the first told by the husband, Lotto, and the second by the wife, Mathilde. I had trouble making sense of it all until I consulted an article called “How to Use Color Psychology to Give Your Business an Edge” and understood that there is subliminal messaging at work. The U.S. cover designer is on team Lotto and emphasized blue for grief, sadness, and distraction. In the U.K., the designer was on Mathilde’s side, hence anger, rage, and ecstasy.

   Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

I love the U.S. cover for this book, but how does it relate to the story? Flowers are sex organs. This book is about sex organs. Then what of the U.K. cover — embroidery is about not having sex. Or not messy sex. Maybe strictly missionary? Or if you get up to more, you have to make the bed perfectly afterwards, including carefully smoothing the bedspread so that no one will suspect what you’ve been up to. Which is exactly what this book is about.

   The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

These two covers clearly illustrate one big difference between the two countries, their respective outlooks on the events leading up to the U.S. presidential election. If you are a drunk woman in the U.S., the primaries feel like you are on a train and with all the antics, both comic and tragic, hurtling around you in an incomprehensible blur. If you are a drunk woman in the U.K., you watch from the outside and find yourself unable to take your wavering eyes off the speeding train — the question that holds your attention is not if it will crash, but how.

   Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Only a fool would think these covers came from different countries. They were clearly designed in alternate dimensions.

  Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Both designs take inspiration from the publisher’s description of the inciting incident: “This book of dark secrets opens with a blaze.” However each seem to have decided that a different element of that incident is more enticing. In the U.S., readers might like dark, mildewy, water-damaged secrets, whereas in the U.K., a good house fire will make the book fly off the shelves?

  A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

It’s hard for me to imagine A Little Life without the ecstasy and agony conveyed by the iconic photograph on the U.S. edition, Orgasmic Man by Peter Hujar. I was struck by ecstasy every time I picked up this book and collapsed into agony after each reading session. I understand the reasoning behind the U.K. cover; it makes sense to put forward an image that evokes life in New York, but it doesn’t echo the experience in the writing, as does Hujar’s art. I wonder, are orgasms not a universal experience? Perhaps people in the U.K. do not have them.

   Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Finally, the clarity I seek. This one is straightforward. The U.S. cover lets you know the name of the book you are buying. The U.K. cover lets you know that you are buying a draft of a sequel that you won’t enjoy unless you keep To Kill a Mockingbird in the back of your mind at all times while reading.

Origin Stories: The Darker Side of J.R.R. Tolkien

The Story of Kullervo, the first known prose work by J.R.R. Tolkien, is to be published this week in the United States, offering fans of Middle Earth a chance to read what may be one of the earliest sources for Tolkien’s quintessential literary fantasy realm.

The story is a retelling of the tragedy of Kullervo from The Kalevala, a Finnish saga compiling oral folklore, which was first published in 1835. The world of The Kalevala proved to be an immense influence on Tolkien’s writings, as did the circumstances of its publication, which reclaimed a national mythology for Finland; Tolkien later expressed an aspiration to do the same for England. As well as Tolkien’s story (which is unfinished, with the conclusion rendered only in a brisk outline), this volume includes an introduction, notes, and concluding essay by editor Verlyn Flieger, as well as two manuscript versions of a lecture Tolkien delivered on the subject of The Kalevala.

The publisher’s claim that this represents a “world first publication of a previously unknown work” is disingenuous, given that almost all of these materials have appeared previously: the story and lectures in the annual academic journal Tolkien Studies in 2010, and the concluding essay in Flieger’s own Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien in 2012. Misleading marketing is nothing new in publishing, but while this is not a deception approaching the scale of, for example, Go Set a Watchman — mostly because there was never really any doubt that this would be only of interest to academics and committed Tolkien fans — it still leaves a bitter taste.

Fortunately, the target audience will find plenty to interest it in The Story of Kullervo, perhaps most significantly the title character, who clearly serves as the inspiration for Túrin Turambar, one of the most important characters in the First Age of Middle Earth. Túrin appears in the posthumously published The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and most fully in The Children of Húrin in 2007. The “hapless Kullervo” directly parallels Túrin in a number of respects — both lose their fathers at an early age, unwittingly commit incest with their estranged sisters, and kill themselves by falling upon their own swords. The story offers early glimpses of numerous other Middle Earth tropes. For example, this story marks Tolkien’s earliest use of verse and song within a prose narrative, a stylistic element that pointed to his love of Germanic and Nordic sagas and would become a defining feature of his best-known works, The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings.

Likewise, some names are reminiscent of those that would become significant in Tolkien’s legendarium, with Wanwe and Ilu evolving into Manwë, King of the Valar, and Ilúvatar, the omnipotent Creator, respectively. Fans of The Hobbit might also notice a potential precursor in Kullervo’s journey down a river in a barrel, and more devoted Tolkienites might see an amalgam of Galadriel and the Blue Wizards in the mysterious figure of the “Blue-robed Lady of the Forest.”

Although this will likely be the chief source of interest for readers, it would be unfortunate to summarize The Story of Kullervo solely in relation to Tolkien’s later work. The story itself is an enjoyable and creative reworking of the Kullervo myth, and serves as great introduction for those unfamiliar with Finnish folklore. As one of Tolkien’s earliest writings (he was still an undergraduate when he wrote it) there is clearly still plenty of room for stylistic development, and his confusing habit of changing the names of characters without explanation will undoubtedly alienate some readers.

However, for those willing to stay with it, The Story of Kullervo presents a captivating story. It also reveals a much darker side to Tolkien; he evidently takes relish in the many moments of violence, manipulating the rash Kullervo (whose name Tolkien tells us means “wrath”) towards his tragic fate.

The most significant problem, however, is that the story breaks off after less than 40 pages, meaning that it takes up only around one-fifth of the volume to which it gives its title. One hesitates to use the word “filler,” but the book leaves the distinct impression that there is not quite enough material here to justify publication in its own volume. For instance, Tolkien’s two draft lecture manuscripts are almost identical in places, yet both are published in full with their own separate sets of notes. Likewise, although Flieger’s essay is insightful, presented alongside her introduction and extensive notes, it is virtually rendered redundant, repeating facts and background information that (in some cases) have already been cited twice before.

Aside from the lectures, it is disappointing not to see any other writings by Tolkien on The Kalevala included in this volume. At least one unpublished poem, “The New Lemminkäinen,” a parody of W.F. Kirby’s translation of The Kalevala written by Tolkien in 1911, is known to exist, and might have bulked up the page count while also providing a rare insight into Tolkien’s sense of humor. Whether this text was made available to Flieger or not remains unknown, but it would certainly not have been out of place here, and would have provided a little more justification for this volume’s existence.

Flieger herself seems to express a sense of uneasiness regarding the necessity of this publication in her introduction, ultimately concluding that the story deserves a wider audience. However, it is hard to see this book, which is decidedly academic in approach, being of much interest to anyone who is not already at least somewhat versed in Tolkien scholarship.

But perhaps this is the volume’s ulterior purpose, or at least its unintended consequence: to address that division between academics and casual readers. Like that of Harper Lee’s, the value of Tolkien’s name ensures that thousands of fans will buy this book; if that results in them being introduced to the writings that influenced him so heavily and are so little read these days outside of academic circles, that is surely a good thing. It will undoubtedly bring greater attention to The Kalevala, and Tolkien — always more comfortable in the role of academic than bestselling writer — would probably have approved.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2016


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

Fates and Furies
5 months

2.
4.

Purity
6 months

3.
5.

Slade House
4 months

4.
7.

Fortune Smiles
2 months

5.
8.

The Big Green Tent
3 months

6.
9.

The Heart Goes Last
5 months

7.
10.

City on Fire
4 months

8.


What Belongs to You
1 month

9.


My Name is Lucy Barton
1 month

10.


A Brief History of Seven Killings
2 months

It’s with a certain degree of triumph that I welcome Marlon James to the first Millions Top Ten of 2016. While this isn’t the first time his superb novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has appeared on our list overall — that first occurred in October of last year — it nevertheless feels a bit like a personal victory for me, the humble author of this series, who has since that time urged each and every one of you to go out and purchase a copy (or three!) immediately. Well, it finally seems that the work has paid off. (Happy New Year to me!) Now let’s work on keeping it here, eh?
This month we graduated three Top Ten fixtures to our Hall of Fame: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The first two were fixtures atop our list for the past six months, while Lee’s Mockingbird sequel-prequel got off to a hot start before ultimately settling in the middle of our ten-book pack.
Their success means Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is the new top book in town. It’s a novel that Margaret Eby described in her Year in Reading entry as the kind “I would start reading on a Saturday morning and soon find myself cancelling weekend plans to finish by Sunday night.” To get acquainted with it, I recommend first checking out our exclusive first look at its opening lines, and then settling in for our interview with its author. If somehow you’re still not convinced that this is a book you absolutely need to read in full, immediately, then allow our own Edan Lepucki’s praise to coax you over the threshold:

I have read all of Groff’s novels, and each one is better than the last, which gives me vicarious hope for my own puny literary pursuits. I get the sense that Groff is always looking for new ways to tell stories, to show time passing, to express human longing, shame, desire, need, all without succumbing to the same-old conventions of scenic conflict and cause-and-effect. Plus, her prose is so shining and unexpected she could describe getting her license renewed at the DMV and I’d find it compelling.

Also this month in addition to A Brief History… we welcome two newcomers to our list: Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You and Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. Both novels have received heaps of praise — both appeared on our Most Anticipated preview — but Greenwell’s in particular has been drawing some seriously effusive reviews. On our site, Jameson Fitzpatrick wrote that What Belongs to You “offers us the most exacting and visionary reading in contemporary literature of what it means to be gay in America today.”

 

This month’s near misses included: Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los AngelesThe Turner HouseThe 3 A.M. EpiphanyUndermajordomo Minor,  and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2015


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Between the World and Me
6 months

2.
2.

A Little Life
6 months

3.
6.

Fates and Furies
4 months

4.
3.

Purity
5 months

5.
4.

Slade House
3 months

6.
5.

Go Set a Watchman
6 months

7.


Fortune Smiles
1 month

8.
10.

The Big Green Tent
2 months

9.
9.

The Heart Goes Last
4 months

10.
8.

City on Fire
3 months

After being crowned the 2015 National Book Award winnerFortune Smiles by Adam Johnson has received an even greater honor: entry onto The Millions’s December 2015 Top Ten list! The collection was described in our second-half Book Preview* as being “six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer ‘finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,’” and it was said to “echo” the author’s “early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome.”

Elsewhere on the list, small shakeups abound. Fates and Furies and The Big Green Tent rose three and two spots, respectively, while Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire moved from the eighth spot to the tenth. Beyond that? There isn’t too much to report.

Next month, however, three fixtures on our list— Between the World and MeA Little Life, and Go Set a Watchman — will likely head to our Hall of Fame, and their ascendance should free up space for fresh blood. They’ll join Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, which joins the Hall this month. If past is prologue, most of those newcomers will have been culled from our Year in Reading series. If so, do you have any guesses on which ones will become fan favorites? Will it be another installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet? (The first one’s already in our Hall…) Will it be Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts? And whatever it may be, will it have a Florida connection?**

Stay tuned to find out.

* Speaking of Previews, have you checked out the first installment of our Great 2016 Book Preview, which posted this week?

** Probably. Everything does.

This month’s near misses included: A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Turner HouseUndermajordomo Minor, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2015


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Between the World and Me
5 months

2.
2.

A Little Life
5 months

3.
3.

Purity
4 months

4.
7.

Slade House
2 months

5.
4.

Go Set a Watchman
5 months

6.
6.

Fates and Furies
3 months

7.
5.

Book of Numbers
6 months

8.
8.

City on Fire
2 months

9.
9.

The Heart Goes Last
3 months

10.


The Big Green Tent
1 month

My uncharacteristically bold plug for Marlon James’s outstanding novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, was not enough to keep the book on our Top Ten this month, and I’m choosing to believe that the only reason is because you’d already purchased your copies when it first came out. It’s not because you don’t trust my recommendations, right? Can’t be.

Nevertheless, this month’s newest title — filling James’s former spot — is Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent. For five years since the novel’s Russian publication, English and North American readers have been eagerly awaiting the translation to finally hit shelves. (In fact, it’s been on The Millions’s radar for so long that it appeared in both our 2014 and 2015 Book Previews.) Following three friends-turned-dissidents who come of age during the Soviet era, the 592-page novel provides a richly detailed, intimate depiction of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.

Still, “any plot-based retelling of The Big Green Tent misses the point entirely,” wrote Emily Tamkin in her review of the book for our site. “It is the story of three boys growing up, yes, but so, too, is it a portrait of a time, and a sketch of so many types who lived in and through it, and of Russian literature itself. … In this way, Ulitskaya has not only described the spirit of an era, but also captured it.”

Stay tuned for our December list, which will undoubtedly be heavily influenced by our current Year in Reading series, underway all month long. Who will be this year’s breakout star? Only one way to find out.

This month’s near misses included: Fourtune SmilesUndermajordomo Minor, Satin Island, and The Paying Guests. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2015


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Between the World and Me
4 months

2.
2.

A Little Life
4 months

3.
4.

Purity
3 months

4.
3.

Go Set a Watchman
4 months

5.
6.

Book of Numbers
5 months

6.
7.

Fates and Furies
2 months

7.


Slade House
1 month

8.


City on Fire
1 month

9.
8.

The Heart Goes Last
2 months

10.


A Brief History of Seven Killings
1 month

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book about de-cluttering and organizing, just became the 102nd title to join our ever-more-cluttered Hall of Fame, which feels appropriate. Meanwhile, two titles – Satin Island and The Paying Guests – fell out of this month’s Top Ten, despite strong showings for the past four months.

As a result, three spots have opened up for newcomers, so let’s take a look at these fresh new faces:

This month’s seventh spot belongs to David Mitchell’s latest project, Slade House, which got its start as a Twitter-based short story last year. (We published the story in full.) Now expanded into a 256-page book, Slade House, spans across five decades, focusing on a mysterious residence down the road from a British pub, and the people who live within – or are invited to.

Next on the list is Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City on Fire, which is surely familiar by now to anyone who a) reads this site, and b) doesn’t live beneath a rock. (Psssst! You can read its opening lines over here.) At 944 pages, this doorstop provides a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the lives of its closely-observed subjects. As Brian Ted Jones remarked in his review for The Rumpus:
It’s not a big novel about the human condition. It’s a novel that word by word reaches out to capture the smallness of life, the minute particularity that stacks up until—whoa, baby—you’ve got a whole universe on your hands, but a universe that flies away like a pile of dirt in a strong wind.
And that level of observation does not come easily, as Hallberg himself noted in his interview with our own Lydia Kiesling:
Writing is definitely not what we typically think of as “easy” or “natural” for the person doing it. You know this as a writer — it’s mostly torture. You have those days when you kind of light up inside like a pinball machine or something, and all of a sudden everything is feeding back 10 times as much as it did the previous day, and you have this sense of joy and you walk out of the house and run into someone you know, or your spouse comes home and says “How was your day,” and you say, “This was a great day! The writing went well!” And then if you actually paused and walked back through the writing hour by hour you would realize, “No, it was still mostly torture, but it was a kind of exquisite and joyous torture on this day, as opposed to the gray horrible torture that it is on most days.”
Man, that must’ve been a fun way to feel for the five years it took to write the book, huh?

Finally, this month we also welcome newly-minted Booker Award winner Marlon James to our Top Ten. His third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, concerns Jamaica at a pivotal moment in its history, and really the history of its relationship with the United States as well, but also it’s about so much more: Bob Marley, CIA machinations, international drug dealers, race, family, friendship, journalism, and art. To call this novel ambitious is to undersell it. If I can be bold for a moment, allow me to say this: James’s novel is the best book I’ve read in years. Heck, even our resident video-bloggers, Michael Schaub and Janet Potter, were rendered speechless by it.

This month’s near misses included: Undermajordomo Minor, Fourtune Smiles, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2015


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Between the World and Me
3 months

2.
7.

A Little Life
3 months

3.
2.

Go Set a Watchman
3 months

4.
8.

Purity
2 months

5.
3.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
6 months

6.
6.

Book of Numbers
4 months

7.


Fates and Furies
1 month

8.


The Heart Goes Last
1 month

9.
10.

The Paying Guests
4 months

10.
9.

Satin Island
5 months

Our Hall of Fame grows to 101 titles strong this month, thanks to the ascension of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (#100) and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (#101). It’s the first appearance in the Hall for both authors.

In their place, we welcome Fates and Furies and The Heart Goes Last, the latest works from Lauren Groff and Margaret Atwood, respectively. The former should be especially familiar to Millions readers, as we shared the book’s opening lines on our site last March, and we interviewed Groff about her writing process (and why she feels ambivalent about Florida) more recently. Atwood, meanwhile, took part in our Year in Reading in 2010.

For the second consecutive month, Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between the World and Me tops our list. It’s an honor that Coates should treasure because his year has otherwise been fairly uneventful for him. After all, he’s only won a MacArthur “genius grant,” been longlisted for the National Book Award, and announced a forthcoming Marvel comic. In other words: nothing that holds a candle to the honor of being named a Millions fan favorite.

Moving along: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life occupies this month’s number two spot. The book’s steady rise over the past three months — unlisted in July, #7 in August, and now runner-up — surprised me almost as much as it’s likely surprised our own Lydia Kiesling, who wrote of the work:
A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels.
Indeed, it’s as though a negative review from Lydia has the perverse effect of skyrocketing her victim’s works into the hands of Millions readers. (After all, this is the second time it’s happened…) Perhaps from now on publicists should refer to Lydia as the Literary Queen Midas?

Elsewhere on the list, Go Set a Watchman and that book on de-cluttering dropped one spot apiece, Franzen’s latest rose a bit, and works by Joshua Cohen, Sarah Waters, and Tom McCarthy held steady.

This month’s near misses included: Undermajordomo Minor, The Martian, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight NightsThe First Bad Man, and Wind/Pinball. See Also: Last month’s list.

On Social Novels

“What if, instead of simply critiquing Go Set a Watchman’s failure, we tried to analyze it? The new, older work makes more sense if we read it as an attempt to accomplish two tasks: first, to master—unsuccessfully, it turns out—the smart-magazine style that Harper Lee developed in her student journalism; and second, to write in a genre that often relied on the ironic elisions typical of ‘smart style’: the midcentury social-problem novel.” Tom Perrin on Harper Lee and the social novel. Pair with Michael Bourne’s Millions review.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2015


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Between the World and Me
2 months

2.
1.

Go Set a Watchman
2 months

3.
4.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
5 months

4.
3.

The Buried Giant
6 months

5.
5.

The Girl on the Train
6 months

6.
6.

Book of Numbers
3 months

7.
8.

A Little Life
2 months

8.


Purity
1 month

9.
7.

Satin Island
4 months

10.
9.

The Paying Guests
3 months

A shuffling atop this month’s Top Ten puts Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between the World and Me above Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which may be expected when one book earns inspires praise from Toni Morrison while copies of the other one are refunded by local bookstores.

Of course, it hasn’t all been praise for Coates’s essay-letter to his son – and, to be fair, it hasn’t all been negative press for Lee’s early novel. In a recent piece for our site, Sonya Chung used a regrettable column by David Brooks to explore the “convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me.” Similarly, our own Michael Bourne pondered the silver lining of Go Set a Watchman’s release, which occasioned the reevaluation of Atticus Finch:
“Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have.
Moving from two major publishing stories to a third: this month’s Top Ten welcomes Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, into its ranks. The work debuts in the eighth spot, likely but a pit stop on its way to the higher reaches of our list, as the book (whose release date was technically September 1st) was only just reaching readers’ hands in the final days of August. Purity follows blockbusters The Corrections and Freedom and, as our own Lydia Kiesling notes, the book contains “a few digs at you, reader.”

The Martian dropped from our list this month. Other near misses included: Wind/Pinball, The First Bad ManThe Tusk That Did the Damage, and Armada. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Real Racist

One thing that pretty much everyone can agree on is that Go Set a Watchman is a controversial book. Our own Michael Bourne said it “fails as a work of art in every way except as a corrective to the standard sentimental reading of Atticus Finch.” At Slate, Dan Kois, Meghan O’Rourke and Katy Waldman debate the main questions the novel raised.

Episode 27: Literary Characters as Republican Presidential Primary Candidates

Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike discuss characters from literature they’d like to see join the already hilariously crowded Republican 2016 presidential primary. Why stop at 17? Come on! We’re just getting warmed up, y’all!

Discussed in this episode: Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, Gregory Peck, Christian Grey, Grey by E.L. James, Edmund Pevensie, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Rep. Greg Stillson (I-N.H.), The Dead Zone by Stephen King, air pollution, Donald Trump (R-N.Y.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the Frank Bascombe books by Richard Ford, Eloise by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight, pugs.

Not discussed in this episode: 15 of the 17 Republican candidates actually running for president, including Jeb Bush (R-Fla.), Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.), Rep. John Whiteman (R-Ohio), Sen. Robert “Bobby” Dollar (R-Wash.), and that one governor who yells at people all the time (R-Ohio).

The Millions Top Ten: July 2015


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.


Go Set a Watchman
1 month

2.


Between the World and Me
1 month

3.
2.

The Buried Giant
5 months

4.
4.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
4 months

5.
5.

The Girl on the Train
5 months

6.
6.

Book of Numbers
2 months

7.
7.

Satin Island
3 months

8.


A Little Life
1 month

9.
10.

The Paying Guests
2 months

10.


The Martian
1 month

Four new additions splashed climbed into the Top Ten this month, with Go Set a Watchman — Harper Lee’s ubiquitous Mockingbird pre/sequel — topping the chart. It would be generous to say that the critical reception to the novel, which was written prior to Mockingbird but set two decades afterward, has been mixed. Many evaluations hinge on whether or not the work is capable of standing on its own, or whether it can only be understood as a draft. (There’s also the whole matter of whether the thing should’ve been published to begin with…) In an essay for our site, Michael Bourne wrapped it all together by writing:
Whatever its true provenance, Go Set a Watchman, despite some deft prose and sharp dialogue, fails as a work of art in every way except as a corrective to the standard sentimental reading of Atticus Finch. … The great revelation of the novel isn’t that Atticus Finch is a bigot, but that he has been one all along and his daughter has been too in love with him to notice.
(Bonus: Robert Rea went to Monroeville, Alabama on the day of the book’s release, and wrote about the experience for our site.)

Also appearing on our list this month is Ta-Nahisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. In her preview for our site last month, Anne K. Yoder wrote that the work “grapples with how to inhabit a black body and how to reckon with America’s fraught racial history from a more intimate perspective — in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Given the current state of affairs, this book should be required reading.”

We also welcome Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Andy Weir’s The Martian to this month’s list. No doubt their presence owes to a recent essay from Lydia Kiesling, and Hollywood’s ongoing obsession with abandoning Matt Damon in space, respectively. We also interviewed Yanagihara this week.

We saw two books graduate to our Hall of Fame; congratulations to Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio and The David Foster Wallace Reader

Nipping at the heels of this month’s selections is Ernest Cline’s new novel, Armada, which was discussed by yours truly in our Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview a few weeks ago. Be honest: a bunch of you bought it because I referenced my “Diablo III” prowess, didn’t you?

Miranda July’s The First Bad Man and Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar dropped from our list this month. Other near misses included: Armada, The Tusk That Did the Damage, and Everything I Never Told You: A Novel. See Also: Last month’s list.

Episode 26: 7 Millions Questions with Karolina Waclawiak

Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike have “Seven Millions Questions with Karolina Waclawiak,” author of How to Get into the Twin Palms and her latest novel, The Invaders, out now from Regan Arts.

Discussed in this episode: John Updike, Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen, Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, sea monsters, avocados, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, Long Division by Kiese Laymon, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, David Lynch, Charles Bukowski, and drunken altercations.

Not discussed in this episode: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. You’re welcome.

My Travels with Harper Lee

It’s summertime in Harper Lee’s hometown, the inspiration for the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird. Summertime at midnight, and light from the dome atop the proud courthouse beams high above the storefronts facing the downtown square. Summertime, and two blocks away a string of lights runs from the front porch of Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe to a lamppost near the street, emitting a soft glow over 400 or so people gathered in the sweltering heat to celebrate the arrival of Miss Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman. It’s summertime, and the literary event of the year is right here in Monroeville, Ala.

To Kill a Mockingbird introduced me to a world I already knew. Other books I’d read as a child lured me away from the soulless and repressive place I lived in. I imagined floating off to a magical land full of mythical creatures or maybe a slightly less spectacular world where a cool, resourceful detective inspects the scene of a crime in search of clues. Nothing worth writing about happened in a small town like mine, or so I believed.

I wasn’t old enough to understand the politics of race or anything regarding rape when I first crossed paths with the Finches, the Radleys, and the rest of Maycomb, Ala. To be honest, I wasn’t quite clear on the meaning of the word chiffarobe, nor did I altogether grasp how to bust one up. Those lessons came later. Still, I was taught a good book shouldn’t instruct so much as inspire.

I took to Scout immediately because she could say anything, without bowing to authority or status quo. As in Maycomb, young people in my hometown dwelled near the bottom of the barrel as far as art, music, and books were concerned. I shared Scout’s frustration with her fellow classmates and teachers like Miss Caroline who “seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature.” Scout spoke my tongue, sized up my home turf, yet somehow bent the familiar toward a richly imaginative — not to mention comical — purpose.

And so, for the release of Miss Lee’s long-lost novel, I lit out on a literary pilgrimage. Upon arriving in Monroeville, I checked in at the Mockingbird Inn & Suites, which exuded the quaint appeal of your standard suburban strip mall. I asked the clerk behind the counter for her thoughts on the new book. “I’m embarrassed to admit I just finished To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time,” she explained. Her co-worker, thumbing through a filing cabinet, leaned over and barked, “I’m not gonna read it — I don’t read fiction books!”

I snagged a schedule of events for the following day’s affairs about town before cutting out. A marathon reading inside the courthouse kicked off at nine. What grabbed my attention, more than anything else, was the midnight release at Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe.

On the way to the square, located in what several street signs assured me was a “historic” downtown area, a freshly coated billboard displayed the Go Set a Watchman cover with “Thank you, Miss Lee! Welcome Visitors” scribbled across the top. Although the square is no longer a hub of commercial activity, the old courthouse — now converted into a museum — retains the majestic beauty moviegoers will recall from the 1962 adaptation of Mockingbird. I caught a glimpse of what looked like a bespectacled Atticus, decked out in white seersucker, lingering on the courthouse lawn. (Should the dubious reader roll his eyes here, so be it.)

My endless quest for the ideal independent bookstore borders on an unhealthy, Ahab-level obsession. I turned up as a forklift unloaded three shrink-wrapped pallets stacked with boxes. Inside the phone rang without end as I browsed the shelves. By noon, Spencer Madrie and his staff, which includes his mother, counted 7,500 orders. “As soon as all this is over, I’ll get a cup of coffee and find a cozy corner to read it,” he told me. “We have 5,000 books to ship out. I’m holding out on reading it until I mail a book to every customer.” Each copy contains a certificate of authenticity and a seal with the store logo embossed on the front flyleaf. I checked my bank account before settling up.

The countdown to midnight exceeded all expectations. News trucks from Birmingham, Mobile, Pensacola, as well as major outlets like CNN, jockeyed for curb space along West Claiborne Street. Reporters flanked the throng of Lee enthusiasts, requesting interviews. Mr. Madrie, dressed in his Sunday best and seeming genuinely surprised at the sizable turnout, welcomed the crowd and thanked them for coming. Roughly half were out-of-towners looking to score a copy of a book that’s available online or at every airport in the English-speaking world.

Meanwhile, alongside the shop, a tent and chairs offered relief from the soul-crushing humidity. An Atticus impersonator, flown in from Baltimore, posed for selfies. (To hell with you, dismissive reader, and your smug skepticism! It was him, after all!) Champagne corks popped, plates of finger foods were passed around, a squad of little leaguers, still suited up in game jerseys, chased one another through a maze of pesky adults. No wine-and-cheese reception, this was a free-for-all blowout for book-lovers of every stripe.

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Madrie and his exceptional bookstore when I say the true hosts on this occasion were the people of Monroeville. I sensed no resentment toward myself and the other strangers-come-lately who’d crashed their party. What’s more, I was treated like one of them. A mother and daughter kept me in polite company as I stood in line. The daughter was hell-bent on reading the entire novel on no sleep. Her mother and I chatted about the negative reviews printed in The New York Times. “Being from Monroeville, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “There’s been so much back-and-forth about whether or not the book should be published. Now it’s time for everyone to read it and decide for themselves.”

Go Set a Watchman stunned reviewers by constructing an alternate universe where the beloved moral giant of American literature appears as a racist jerk. From these dashed off impressions, you’d assume Atticus Finch is the character central to the plot. The starting point for this strain of critical myopia begins with the Mockingbird film and the decisive role Gregory Peck played in editing the final cut. According to Charles J. Shields’s biography of Lee,

At the time, the film was considered politically liberal because of the attention paid in the screenplay to social justice. Looking back, however, Peck’s insistence that Atticus’s character occupy more of the film’s center injects a heavy dose of white patriarchal values. In a word, Atticus, an educated white male, appears to be the most important person in the film. Everyone else defers to him, humors him, reacts to him, or disagrees with him. As one critic recently noted, the elimination of Scout’s voice-over from most of the film means that the viewer doesn’t see small-town southern society from the perspective of a young female growing up in it.

Never forget, aspiring Scout impersonators, Lee’s treatment of the story, unlike the cinematic version, is told from the point-of-view of a young girl. By the same token, Go Set a Watchman catches up with our scrappy heroine as a 26-year-old exile, returning to the scene of her childhood.

It comes as no surprise that Lee’s second novel doesn’t quite measure up to the achievement of her debut. An ill-formed draft submitted to publishers at J.B. Lippincott in 1957, Watchman underwent a major overhaul after her editor, Tay Hohoff, recommended rewriting it from the perspective of a child. Two years and untold revisions later, Lippincott finally accepted the manuscript — this time bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird.

What makes the book a fascinating read, nonetheless, is getting to know Scout as an adult. For those of us who take the liberty of reading Mockingbird as an origin story, Watchman points her toward a destination in life. She stares out a window on a moving train in the opening scene. Her homecoming takes place after living in New York for five years. Sparks fly when a city girl feels pressured to settle down in Maycomb County.

Except for the fact Scout’s dropped her nickname, in certain ways, she’s the same “juvenile desperado, hell-raiser extraordinary” we’ve come to know and love. Jean Louise Finch still thumbs her nose at her prudish Aunt Alexandra, and “when confronted with an easy way out, [she] always took the hard way.”

At a glance, even less has changed in Maycomb, where “if you did not want much, there was plenty.” Atticus, we are told, “was seventy-two last month, but Jean Louise always thought of him as hovering somewhere in his middle fifties — she could not remember him being any younger, and he seemed to grow no older.”

The same stagnant air hovers over Jean Louise’s ex-boyfriend, Hank Clinton, whose world stopped turning back in high school. She keeps him at arm’s length, even though he clearly aims to marry her: “She was easy to look at and easy to be with most of the time, but she was in no sense of the word an easy person. She was afflicted with a restlessness of spirit he could not guess at, but he knew she was the one for him. He would protect her; he would marry her.” His intentions are both noble and condescending. Fortunately, Jean Louise brushes him off in a memorable scene after a late-night swim: “When you live in New York, you often have the feeling that New York’s not the world. I mean this: every time I come home I feel like I’m coming back to the world, and when I leave Maycomb it’s like leaving the world. It’s silly. I can’t explain it, and what makes it sillier is that I’d go stark raving living in Maycomb.”

For every strike against Maycomb, there are homespun moments such as the rapport she shares with the owner of an ice cream shop: “Mr. Cunningham, a man of uncompromising rectitude, had given her a pint free of charge for having guessed his name yesterday, one of the tiny things she adored about Maycomb: people remembered their promises.”

But Atticus and Hank, it turns out, are hiding a continuity-shucking secret. The tipping point comes after Jean Louise discovers they are members of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council. Torn between staying and going, she condemns their actions in what is perhaps the most striking passage in the novel.

Hell is eternal apartness. What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party.

After seeking guidance from her long-winded uncle, Dr. Jack Finch, Jean Louise barges in her father’s office for a final showdown. With the calm demeanor of a seasoned country lawyer, Atticus delivers a chilling argument in favor of white supremacy and scolds his daughter for “talk[ing] like the NAACP.”

I won’t spoil what happens, but let me just say the closing chapter leaves readers to debate the value of origins, and whether or not Jean Louise succeeds in escaping Maycomb. To be fair, her home turf can’t simply be dismissed as a wasteland because her native soil, somehow, nurtured the independent woman we admire. And yet, tales of success told in small towns across the country are so often stories of sons and daughters who have cut those ties and left. In either case, Go Set a Watchman taps into a classic myth that crosses every stage of American literature, from Walt Whitman and Mark Twain to John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison: the story of American migration.

I overslept the next morning after a late night at the bookstore. My thoughts turned to Atticus as I peered over the balcony where Scout, Jem, and Dill joined Maycomb’s black citizens for Tom Robinson’s trial. Below me, an integrated audience met in the courtroom for a marathon reading of Go Set a Watchman, proof that life stops for no one.

I spotted a billboard off the highway advertising Monroeville as “The Literary Capital of Alabama” as I drove north. It’s been many years since I left my hometown with dreams of living closer to the center of literary culture. As I sat down to write about my summer trip to Monroeville, Ala., I couldn’t help wondering if I didn’t exchange wealth for poverty.

Image Credit: John Rea.

True South

Amidst all the controversy surrounding Go Set a Watchman, one question that gets left out is how realistic, exactly, the book is in its depiction of its setting. At Salon, Scott Timberg sits down with Professor Angela Thorburg, who makes a case that regardless of its literary qualities, Watchman is “a very accurate perspective of what’s going on here in the South.”

America, Meet the Real Atticus Finch


 

Imagine that you are an eighth-grade English teacher who has been teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for decades. The book works for your students because it tells a compelling story about an ugly period in American history in an accessible and often funny way, with children not much younger than the students in your classes as central characters. But you also return to it year after year because the novel provokes lively discussions of profound moral questions: What societal forces can turn even decent people into racists? How do we combat intolerance? Can one good man willing to die for the rule of law face down an angry mob?

But with the school year weeks away, you are wavering about whether to put To Kill a Mockingbird on the syllabus this fall because you know that 10 minutes into the first day of teaching the book some smart ass in the back row will ask: “But wait, isn’t Atticus Finch a racist?”

This question troubles you because you have now read Go Set a Watchman, the 1957 precursor to To Kill a Mockingbird, and you know the smart ass in the back row is right. According to no less an authority than Harper Lee, Atticus Finch, the lawyer hero of Mockingbird who defends an innocent black man charged with raping a white woman, is an ardent segregationist. In Watchman, the iconic character venerated by generations of American schoolchildren rails against the NAACP and invites a white supremacist to address the White Citizens Council he has helped organize to combat the 1954 Supreme Court decision ending segregation in public schools.

Try explaining that one to a 14-year-old.

In perhaps the richest irony of the ever-shifting tale of how an early draft of Lee’s classic novel came to be published 58 years after it was put in a drawer, the release of Go Set a Watchman may kill the goose that laid American publishing’s most lucrative golden egg by putting an end to a willfully misguided reading of one of the 20th century’s bestselling novels. If it does not, it should, for the plot of Go Set a Watchman, creaky as it is, shatters once and for all the popular misunderstanding of Atticus Finch’s legal philosophy that turned To Kill a Mockingbird into a white liberal fairy tale for the Civil Rights Era.

Were it not so clumsily constructed, Go Set a Watchman would be the great undiscovered masterwork of 20th-century Southern literature. Jean Louise Finch, who still answers to her childhood nickname of Scout, returns to Maycomb, Ala., to visit her family. Twenty years after the events of the novel American readers thought they knew so well, Jean Louise’s brother, Jem, is dead and has been replaced in the family structure by a neighbor boy named Henry Clinton, who stands to inherit her father’s law practice and who wants to marry Jean Louise. Meanwhile, Atticus has moved into a new home and the house Jean Louise grew up in has been replaced by an ice cream parlor. Finch Landing, the family’s ancestral home and the site of her fondest childhood memories, has been turned into hunting lodge.

More troublingly, Jean Louise learns that the grandson of Calpurnia, the family’s beloved cook, has killed the town drunk in a car accident. Atticus takes the case, not because he thinks he can get the young black man off for killing a white man — Calpurnia’s grandson is plainly guilty — but because he fears that if he doesn’t step in, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund will use the case to insist, among other things, that black people be seated on the jury. “Scout, you probably don’t know this, but the NAACP-paid lawyers are standing around like buzzards waiting for things like this to happen,” Atticus tells her.

This breaks Jean Louise’s heart, and if Watchman were a better book, it would break ours, too. Jean Louise sees her father as a model of moral probity and racial tolerance, a man who defended a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman 20 years earlier (in Watchman, unlike in Mockingbird, Atticus wins an acquittal). She recalls hearing “her father’s voice, a tiny voice talking in the warm comfortable past. Gentleman, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.” When he tells her he plans to take the case to keep the NAACP at bay, Jean Louise struggles not to vomit up her morning coffee, and when he again calls her Scout she bristles. “His use of her childhood name crashed on her ears. Don’t you ever call me that again [she thought]. You who called me Scout are dead and in your grave.”

Unfortunately for readers of Go Set a Watchman, the inherent drama of Jean Louise’s disillusionment with her father is drowned in a sea of talk and murky plotting. Watchman is structured as a series of conversations Jean Louise has with friends and family members, intercut with extended memories of the “warm comfortable past” that she recalls Atticus presiding over.

For Watchman’s original readers, who could feel no nostalgia for a novel that had not yet been written, these flashbacks must have been puzzling. The scenes with Jem and Dill are carried off with Lee’s signature warmth and charm, but aside from standing as an Edenic counterpoint to the fallen world of present-day Maycomb, the flashbacks play little role in the novel. Jem is dead, and Dill is in Europe. Why, one wonders, are they even in this novel? Why create Jem only to kill him off and replace him with a surrogate brother for Jean Louise to consider marrying? It makes no sense.

It makes so little sense, in fact, that I could never shake the queasy feeling that Go Set a Watchman is part of some elaborate hoax. Perhaps, as some have suggested, Lee wrote Watchman as a failed sequel to Mockingbird. Perhaps another author wrote Watchman and has somehow passed it off as Lee’s long-lost first draft. I have no idea. All I know is the most powerful passages in the newly released novel — the revelation of Atticus’s stand against integration, the flashbacks with Dill and Jem, Scout’s visit to an ailing Calpurnia — moved me only because of my relationship to a book that did not exist when Watchman was ostensibly written. If I hadn’t read Mockingbird, why would I have plowed through 20 pages of Jean Louise’s memories of Jem and Dill, who don’t otherwise figure in Watchman? If I hadn’t read Mockingbird, why would I give a damn that Atticus Finch is a racist?

Whatever its true provenance, Go Set a Watchman, despite some deft prose and sharp dialogue, fails as a work of art in every way except as a corrective to the standard sentimental reading of Atticus Finch. In an uncanny way, Jean Louise’s view of her father at the start of Watchman mirrors how generations of schoolchildren have been taught to read Atticus Finch in Mockingbird. In his daughter’s adoring eyes, Atticus is not merely an attorney who defended an innocent black man charged with raping a white woman, but a model for all that is good in white educated society. “She did not stand alone,” Lee writes, “but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father.
She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision the reflex, “What would Atticus do?” passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.
The passage is worth quoting at length because in it lies the heart of the tragedy of Go Set a Watchman. The great revelation of the novel isn’t that Atticus Finch is a bigot, but that he has been one all along and his daughter has been too in love with him to notice. “She was,” Lee writes, “extravagant with her pity, and complacent in her snug world.”

If we are to accept the facts as they have been presented to us, Lee wrote those words before To Kill a Mockingbird was written, before the novel won a Pulitzer Prize and Gregory Peck won an Oscar for playing its hero in the movies. She wrote those words before white America, beleaguered by televised images of billy clubs raining down on the heads of praying women and Bull Connor’s dogs set upon children, fell in love with Atticus Finch as a good Southern white man standing up to white “trash” abusing law-abiding black people. Yet it is hard to read those words and not think Harper Lee is speaking to us, her future readers. She is telling us, “Don’t fall in love too easily with this man.” She is saying, “Listen carefully to everything he says because he is a much more complicated man than he appears.”

And of course she is right. Erase Gregory Peck from your memory. Forget everything your middle school teacher ever told you about To Kill a Mockingbird. Trim away the golden halo that materializes over Atticus’s head every time he appears on the page, and think about what he actually does in the novel. He doesn’t volunteer to take Robinson’s case; he is assigned it. He doesn’t win the case, either. Granted, Clarence Darrow couldn’t have won an acquittal in a black-on-white rape case in Depression-era Alabama, but Atticus goes into court expecting to lose and he is careful only to directly challenge Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella, the alleged victim, two of the least powerful white people in Maycomb. Atticus does sit in front of the jail to protect his client from a lynching party, but one so feeble and half-hearted that the jabbering of an eight-year-old girl can shame them from their mission.

He also teaches Scout a memorable lesson about empathy, saying that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” The fact that Atticus uses the words “climb into his skin” rather than the commonplace “step into his shoes” certainly suggests he is thinking about people of different races, but in fact he is saying nothing of the kind. In the scene, he is advising Scout to empathize with her inexperienced teacher, Miss Caroline, and the other, less fortunate children at her school — all of whom are white.

I don’t mean to dismiss Atticus, who is a fundamentally decent man. For him, defending a man wrongly accused, whatever that man’s station in life, is a matter of conscience, and given the time and place in which he lives, the fact that he follows through on his beliefs shows rare courage. But nothing he does in To Kill a Mockingbird suggests he believes that black children should go to school with white children, or even that he believes that black people are equal to white people when they’re not on trial for their lives for a crime they did not commit.

In his summation at the end of the rape trial, Atticus lays out his peculiarly Southern patrician view of the foundational American idea of universal equality. “Thomas Jefferson once said all men are equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington [i.e. Eleanor Roosevelt] are fond of hurling at us,” he tells the jury. “There is a tendency in this year of grace, 1935, for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious — because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority.”

He continues: “But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal — there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.”

There, in plain English, is Atticus Finch’s view of human equality: All men are equal in a court of law, but to apply the axiom outside a courtroom is to take it “out of context.” We, Harper Lee’s white readers, fashioned out of the tissue of our desperate need for a white Southern hero a progressive icon yearning for a day when the sons of slaves and the sons of slaveowners will sit together at the table of brotherhood. But that man exists only in our minds, and in the mind of his worshipful eight-year-old daughter. On the page, Atticus makes clear that while he believes in the rule of law, in others sphere of life, including public education, he wants natural differences between people to be recognized.

In other words, the Atticus Finch defending Tom Robinson against a trumped-up rape charge in To Kill a Mockingbird is very much the same Atticus Finch rallying to prevent school integration in Go Set a Watchman. All that changes between the two novels is the perspective of the narrator from a child to a grown woman. What this says about us, Harper Lee’s legions of white readers, is too obvious to bear stating.

In the closing pages of Go Set a Watchman, after Atticus and his brother Jack have worn Jean Louise down with hours of elegant sophistry on all the ways the Constitution allows for the enlightened subjugation of a race of people, Jack tells her bluntly that it is time for her see her father for the man he has always been:
“As you grew up, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings…You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that his answers would always be your answers.”
“Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have.

Lee’s Co-Conspirator

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about the famously reclusive Harper Lee, and with good reason – her long-awaited second book, Go Set A Watchman, was released last week, and isn’t quite what readers expected. Over at The Atlantic, Ari N. Schulman takes a slightly different approach to Lee and her work by focusing instead on Maurice Cain, Lee’s longtime agent, friend, and “co-conspirator.”

The Book Report: Episode 24: Sequels We’d Like to Discover

Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike get inspired by Harper Lee’s new Go Kill a Watchbird, and talk about sequels to classic books they’d like to discover.

Discussed in this episode: Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, racist Atticus Finch, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Christmas Story by Charles Dickens, Scarface (dir. Brian De Palma), Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Family Stone (dir. Thomas Bezucha), Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Animal Farm by George Orwell, middle school plays, old-timey editorial cartoons, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett O’Hara’s nonsense, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield’s stupid cap, selling out, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the forgotten students of Hogwarts, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jean Valjean.

Cut for time from this episode but likely to be included as an extra on the eventual DVD: 2 Naked 2 Dead by Norman Mailer.

Tuesday New Release Day: Coates; Lee; Cline; Williams; Couto; Pulley; Liontas; Mohr; Newman; Kracht; Motion

Out this week: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee; Armada by Ernest Cline; Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales by Tom Williams; Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto; The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley; Let Me Explain You by Annie Liontas; All This Life by Joshua Mohr; A Master Plan for Rescue by Janis Cooke Newman; Imperium by Christian Kracht; and The New World by Andrew Motion. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview.

Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview

If you like to read, we’ve got some news for you. The second-half of 2015 is straight-up, stunningly chock-full of amazing books. If someone told you, “Hey, there are new books coming out by Margaret Atwood, Lauren Groff, Elena Ferrante, John Banville, and Jonathan Franzen this year,” you might say, “Wow, it’s going to be a great year for books.” Well, those five authors all have books coming out in September this year (alongside 22 other books we’re highlighting that month). This year, you’ll also see new books from David Mitchell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Aleksandar Hemon, Patti Smith, Colum McCann, Paul Murray, and what we think is now safe to call a hugely anticipated debut novel from our own Garth Risk Hallberg.

The list that follows isn’t exhaustive — no book preview could be — but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 82 titles, this is the only second-half 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.

July:
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee: Fifty-five years after the publication of Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, this “newly discovered” sequel picks up 20 years after the events of the first novel when Jean Louise Finch — better known to generations of readers as Scout — returns to Maycomb, Ala., to visit her lawyer father, Atticus. Controversy has dogged this new book as many have questioned whether the famously silent Lee, now pushing 90 and in poor health, truly wanted publication for this long-abandoned early effort to grapple with the characters and subject matter that would evolve into her beloved coming-of-age novel. (Michael)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A journalist who learned the ropes from David Carr, Coates is one of our most incisive thinkers and writers on matters of race. Coates is unflinching when writing of the continued racial injustice in the United States: from growing up in Baltimore and its culture of violence that preceded the Freddie Gray riots, to making the case for reparations while revealing the systematic racism embedded in Chicago real estate, to demanding that South Carolina stop flying the Confederate flag. In Between the World and Me, Coates grapples with how to inhabit a black body and how to reckon with America’s fraught racial history from a more intimate perspective — in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Given the current state of affairs, this book should be required reading. Originally slated for September, the book was moved up to July. Spiegel & Grau Executive Editor Chris Jackson said, “We started getting massive requests from people [for advance copies.] It spoke to this moment. We started to feel pregnant with this book. We had this book that so many people wanted.” Publishers Weekly’s review dispensed with any coyness, saying, “This is a book that will be hailed as a classic of our time.” (Anne)

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Elegant and spooky, dystopian and poetic, Jesse Ball’s follow-up to the well-reviewed Silence Once Begun follows a man known only as “the claimant” as he relearns everything under the guidance of an “examiner,” a woman who defines everything from the objects in their house to how he understands his existence. Then he meets another woman at a party and begins to question everything anew. A puzzle, a love story, and a tale of illness, memory, and manipulation, A Cure for Suicide promises to be a unique novel from a writer already known for his originality. (Kaulie)

The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: Volume number five of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series expands on the author’s epic portrayal of the settlement of North America. In his latest, Vollmann depicts the Nez Perce War, a months-long conflict in 1877 that saw the eponymous Native American tribe defend their mountain territories from encroachment by the U.S. Army. According to Vollmann, who spoke with Tom Bissell about the series for a New Republic piece, the text consists of mostly dialogue. (Thom)

 

Armada by Ernest Cline: Billy Mitchell, the “greatest arcade-video-game player of all time,” devoted 40 hours a week to the perfection of his craft, but he says he never skipped school or missed work. That was 35 years ago, before video games exploded not only in size and complexity, but also in absorptive allure. Recently, things have changed. It was only a year ago that a California couple was imprisoned for locking their children in a dingy trailer so the two of them could play ‘World of Warcraft” uninterrupted. (By comparison, Mitchell’s devotion seems pedestrian.) This year, programmers are working on “No Man’s Sky,” a “galaxy-sized video game” that’ll allow players to zip around a full-scale universe in the name of interplanetary exploration. It sounds impossibly gigantic. And with escalation surely comes a reckoning: Why are people spending more time with games than without? Across the world, a new class of professional gamers are earning lucrative sponsorships and appearing on slickly produced televised tournaments with tuition-sized purses. But surely more than money is at stake. (Full disclosure: I made more real money selling virtual items in “Diablo III’s” online marketplace than I did from writing in ’12.) As increasingly rich worlds draw us in, what are we hoping to gain? It can’t just be distraction, can it? Are there practical benefits, or are we just hoping there are? This, to me, sounds like the heart of Ernest Cline’s latest novel, Armada, which focuses on a real life alien invasion that can only be stopped by gamers who’ve been obediently (albeit unknowingly) training for this very task. (Nick M.)

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch: The visionary editor of Chiasmus Press and first to publish books by Kate Zambreno and Lily Hoang is herself a fierce and passionate writer. Yuknavitch is the author of a gutsy memoir, The Chronology of Water, and Dora: A Headcase, a fictional re-spinning of the Freudian narrative. Her new novel, Small Backs of Children, deals with art, violence, and the very real effects of witnessing violence and conflict through the media. According to Porochista Khakpour, the novel achieves “moments of séance with writers like Jean Rhys and Clarice Lispector,” a recommendation destined to make many a reader slaver. (Anne)

Lovers on All Saints’ Day by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: The Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Bolaño. Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Award for his novel The Sound of Things Falling, Vásquez is bringing out a collection of seven short stories never before published in English (nimbly translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean). The twinned themes of this collection are love and memory, which Vásquez unspools through stories about love affairs, revenge, troubled histories — whole lives and worlds sketched with a few deft strokes.  Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has called Vásquez “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature.” (Bill)

Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales by Tom Williams: The recent passing of B.B. King makes Williams’s previous book, Don’t Start Me Talkin’ — a comic road novel about a pair of traveling blues musicians — a timely read. His new story collection also skewers superficial discussions of race; admirers of James Alan McPherson will enjoy Williams’s tragicomic sense. The book ranges from the hilarious “The Story of My Novel,” about an aspiring writer’s book deal with Cousin Luther’s Friend Chicken, to the surreal “Movie Star Entrances,” how one man’s quest to remake himself with the help of an identity consulting company turns nefarious. Williams can easily, and forcefully, switch tragic, as in “The Lessons of Effacement.” When the main character is followed, he thinks “When your only offenses in life were drinking out of the juice carton and being born black in these United States, what could warrant such certain persecution?” Williams offers questions that are their own answers, as in the final story, when a biracial anthropologist discovers that a hidden mulatto community is more than simply legend. (Nick R.)

August:
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill)

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson: Johnson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, but he’s also the author of a terrific and off-kilter story collection called Emporium, a literary cousin to the sad-comic work of George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, and Dan Chaon. This new collection of six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer “finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,” echoes his early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome. Kirkus gave the collection a starred review, calling it, “Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom.” (Edan)

Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami: A reissue of Murakami’s first novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, which form the first half of the so-called (four-book) Trilogy of the Rat. Written in 1978 and 1980, these books were never published outside of Japan, evidently at Murakami’s behest. He seems to have relented. (Lydia)

 

 

The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: Fifteen stories — connected by their depictions of a number of shared female characters – make up this new collection by short story master Beattie. In “Major Maybe,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, two young roommates navigate Chelsea in the ’80s. In “The Repurposed Barn,” readers glimpse an auction of Elvis Presley lamps, and in “Missed Calls,” a writer meets a photographer’s widow. Though most of the stories take place in Beattie’s home state of Maine, the author says they required her to call on the work of memory, as they took place in a “recalled” Maine rather than the Maine “outside her window.” (Thom)

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: Describing Rachel, the protagonist of Alice Hoffman’s 34th novel, as the mother of Camille Pissarro, the Father of Impressionism, feels like exactly the kind of thing I shouldn’t be doing right now. That’s because The Marriage of Opposites isn’t about an artist. It’s about the very real woman who led a full and interesting life of her own, albeit one that was profoundly shaped by decisions she didn’t make. Growing up in 19th-century St. Thomas, among a small community of Jewish refugees who’d fled the Inquisition, Rachel dreams of worlds she’s never known, like Paris. No doubt she yearns for a freedom she’s never known, too, after her father arranges her marriage to one of his business associates. What happens next involves a sudden death, a passionate affair, and an act of defiance signaling that perhaps Rachel is free, and that certainly she’s got her own story to tell. (Nick M.)

The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector: For readers who worship at the altar of Lispector, the appearance of new work in translation is an event. Her writing has long been celebrated across her homeland, Brazil, and Latin America, but it wasn’t until recently that her name became common currency among English readers thanks to New Directions’s reissue of her novels and Benjamin Moser’s notable biography. To add to the allure of “Brazil’s great mystic writer,” Moser offers, she was “that rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” Calling the release of Lispector’s Complete Stories in English an “epiphany” in its promotional copy may sound like hyperbole. It’s not. (Anne)

Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson: Shirley Jackson has been a powerhouse in American fiction ever since her haunting 1948 short story “The Lottery,” which showcased her talent for turning the quotidian into something eerie and unnerving. Although she died 50 years ago, her family is still mining her archives for undiscovered gems, resulting in this new collection of 56 pieces, more than 40 of which have never been published before. From short stories to comic essays to drawings, Jackson’s full range is on display, yet her wit and sharp examination of social norms is present throughout. (Tess)

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville: Miéville, the author of more than a dozen novels, is the sort of writer that deftly leaps across (often artificially-imposed) genre divides. He describes his corner of speculative fiction as “weird fiction,” in the footsteps of H.P. Lovecraft. (Tor.com mocked the desire to endlessly subcategorise genre by also placing his work in “New Weird!” “Fantastika!” “Literary Speculation!” “Hauntological Slipstream!” “Tentacular Metafusion!”) His first short story collection was published a decade ago; his second, with 10 previously-published stories and 18 new ones, is out in the U.S. in August. (Elizabeth)

The Daughters by Adrienne Celt: Celt, who is also a comics artist, writes in her bio that she grew up in Seattle, and has both worked for Google and visited a Russian prison.  Her debut novel covers a lot of ground, emotionally and culturally: opera, Polish mythology, and motherhood/daughterhood. Kirkus has given The Daughters a starred review — “haunting” and “psychologically nuanced” — and she was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award, among others. Celt’s web comics appear weekly here, and she sells t-shirts! One to watch.(Sonya)

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: If anyone’s a Paris Review regular it’s Ottessa Moshfegh, with a coveted Plimpton Prize and four stories to her name (in only three year’s time). Her narrators have a knack for all kind of bad behavior: like the algebra teacher who imbibes 40s from the corner bodega on school nights, who smokes in bed and drunk dials her ex-husband, or the woman who offers to shoot a flock of birds for her apartment-manager boyfriend. Moshfegh’s novels track the lives of characters who are equally and indulgently inappropriate. Moshfegh’s first full-length novel Eileen follows a secretary at a boys prison (whose vices include a shoplifting habit) who becomes lured by friendship into committing a far larger crime. (Anne)

Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer: Schaer worked as a deckhand on the HMS Bounty, which sank during Hurricane Sandy, so I entered Shipbreaking feeling that I would be in credible hands. I often read poetry to find phrases and lines to hold with me beyond the final page, and Schaer, who once wrote that “to leave the shore required surrender,” delivers. “I am / forgiven by water, but savaged by sky” says one narrator. Another: “Even swooning / is a kind of fainting, overwhelmed / by bliss, instead of pain.” Shipbreaking is a book about being saved while recognizing loss. Schaer’s words apply equally to marine and shore moments, as so often life is “a charade that only deepens / the absence it bends to hide.” Schaer’s long poems are especially notable; “Middle Flight” and “Natural History” remake pregnancy and motherhood: “Before now, he floated in dark water…Someday he too will chase his lost lightness / half-remembered toward the sky.” If we trust our poets enough, we allow them cause wounds and then apply the salves: “The world without us / is nameless.” (Nick R.)

Last Mass by Jamie Iredell: “I am a Catholic.” So begins Iredell’s book, part memoir about growing up Catholic in Monterey County, Calif., part historical reconsideration of Blessed Father Fray Juníperro Serra, an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan who will be canonized by Pope Francis later this year. Structured around the Stations of the Cross, Iredell’s unique book reveals the multitudinous complexities of Catholic identity, and how the tensions between those strands are endemic to Catholic culture. Think of Last Mass as William Gass’s On Being Blue recast as On Being Catholic: Iredell’s range is encyclopedic without feeling stretched. Delivered in tight vignettes that capture the Catholic tendency to be simultaneously specific and universal, the book’s heart is twofold. First, how faith is ultimately a concern of the flesh, as seen in the faithful’s reverence for the body of Christ and struggles over experiencing sexuality (Catholics pivot between the obscene and the divine without missing a step). Second, in documenting Catholic devotion to saintly apocrypha, Iredell carries the reader to his most heartfelt note: his devotion and love for his father and family. (Nick R.)

September:
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: Known for his mastery of the modern domestic drama and his disdain for Internet things, Franzen, with his latest enormous novel, broadens his scope from the tree-lined homes of the Midwest and the Mainline to variously grim and paradisiacal domiciles in Oakland, East Germany, and Bolivia; alters his tableaux from the suburban nuclear family to fractured, lonely little twosomes; and progresses from cat murder to human murder. The result is something odd and unexpected — a political novel that is somehow less political than his family novels at their coziest, and shot through with new strains of bitterness. Expect thinkpieces. (Lydia)

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: Groff’s highly anticipated third novel follows married couple Lotto and Matthilde for over two decades, starting with an opening scene (published on The Millions), of the young, just-hitched duo getting frisky on the beach. The book was one of the galleys-to-grab at BookExpo America this spring, and it’s already received glowing reviews from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. Meg Wolitzer writes of Groff: “Because she’s so vitally talented line for line and passage for passage, and because her ideas about the ways in which two people can live together and live inside each other, or fall away from each other, or betray each other, feel foundationally sound and true, Fates and Furies becomes a book to submit to, and be knocked out by, as I certainly was.” (Edan)

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood: A hotly anticipated story about “a near-future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free,” this is Atwood’s first standalone novel since The Blind Assassin, which won the Man Booker in 2000 (The Penelopiad was part of the Canongate Myth Series). Charmaine and Stan are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of social and economic turmoil. They strike a deal to join a “social experiment” that requires them to swap suburban paradise for their freedom. Given Atwood’s reputation for wicked social satire, I doubt it goes well. Publishers Weekly notes, “The novel is set in the same near-future universe as Atwood’s Positron series of four short stories, released exclusively as e-books. The most recent Positron installment, which was published under the same name as the upcoming novel, came out in 2013.” (Claire)

The Blue Guitar by John Banville: Banville’s 16th novel takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem about artistic imagination and perception: “Things as they are/ Are changed upon the blue guitar.” Banville’s protagonist, Oliver Otway Orme, is a talented but blocked painter, an adulterer, and something of a kleptomaniac who returns to his childhood home to ruminate on his misdeeds and vocation. With such an intriguing, morally suspect central character as his instrument, Banville should be able to play one of his typically beguiling tunes. (Matt)

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante: Ferrante writes what James Wood called “case histories, full of flaming rage, lapse, failure, and tenuous psychic success.” In the fourth and final of the reclusive global publishing sensation’s Neapolitan novels, we return to Naples and to the tumultuous friendship of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco. (Lydia)

 

 

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt: DeWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, was short-listed for the Man Booker and just about every Canadian prize going, and for good reason. It took the grit, melancholy, and wit of the Western genre and bent it just enough toward the absurd. This new work, billed as “a fable without a moral,” is about a young man named Lucien (Lucy) Minor who becomes an undermajordomo at a castle full of mystery, dark secrets, polite theft, and bitter heartbreak. Our own Emily St. John Mandel calls it, “unexpectedly moving story about love, home, and the difficulty of finding one’s place in the world.” (Claire)

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie: A new Rushdie novel is an event — as is a new Rushdie tweet for that matter, especially after his vigorous defense of PEN’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo. His latest follows the magically gifted descendants of a philosopher and a jinn, one of those seductive spirits who “emerge periodically to trouble and bless mankind.” These offspring are marshaled into service when a war breaks out between the forces of light and dark that lasts, you got it, two years, eight months, and 28 nights. You can read an excerpt at The New Yorker. (Matt)

Sweet Caress by William Boyd: Boyd is one of those Englishmen who changes hats as effortlessly as most people change socks. A novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and movie director, Boyd has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for 1982’s An Ice-Cream War), and he recently wrote the James Bond novel Solo. His new novel, Sweet Caress, is the story of Amory Clay, whose passion for photography takes her from London to Berlin in the decadent 1920s, New York in the turbulent ’30s, and France during World War II, where she becomes one of the first female war photographers. This panoramic novel is illustrated with “found” period photographs. (Bill)

The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams: The “definitive” collection from an acknowledged mastress of the short story — Rea Award Winner alongside Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Robert Coover, Deborah Eisenberg, James Salter, Mary Robison, Amy Hempel, et alia — The Visiting Privilege collects 33 stories from three previous collections, and 13 stories previously unpublished in book form. Joy Williams has been a writer’s writer for decades, yet never goes out of fashion. Her stories are sometimes difficult, bizarre, upsetting even; and always funny, truthful, and affecting. Williams once exhorted student writers to write something “worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.” Would-be writers perplexed by what is meant by an original “voice” should read Williams, absolutely. Read her in doses, perhaps, but read her, for godssakes. (Sonya)

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: By day, Clegg is a glamorous New York literary agent known for snagging fat book deals for literary authors like Matthew Thomas and Daniyal Mueenuddin. At night, he peels off the power suit and becomes a literary author himself, first with two memoirs about his descent into — and back out of — crack addiction, and now a debut novel. In Did You Ever Have a Family, tragedy strikes a middle-aged woman on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, setting her off on a journey across the country from Connecticut to the Pacific Northwest, where she hides out in a small beachside hotel. (Michael)

The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates: Volcanically prolific Oates has produced another memoir, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, which focuses on her formative years growing up on a hard-scrabble farm in upstate New York.  We learn of young Oates’s close friendship with a red hen, her first encounters with death, and the revelation, on discovering Alice in Wonderland, that life offers endless adventures to those who know how to look for them.  Witnessing the birth of this natural storyteller, we also witness her learning harsh lessons about work, sacrifice and loss — what Oates has called “the difficulties, doubts and occasional despair of my experience.” (Bill)

The Double Life of Liliane by Lily Tuck: The only child of a German movie producer living in Italy and an artistic mother living in New York, Liliane also has ancestors as varied as Mary Queen of Scots, Moses Mendelssohn, and a Mexican adventurer. In this sixth, semi-autobiographical novel from Lily Tuck, winner of the National Book Award for The News from Paraguay, the imaginative Liliane uncovers her many ancestors, tracing and combining their histories as she goes. The result is a writerly coming-of-age that spans both World Wars, multiple continents, and all of one very diverse family. (Kaulie)

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison: A writer with a reputation for having a big heart takes on Harriet Chance who, at 79 years old and after the death of her husband, goes on a Alaskan cruise. Soon she discovers that she’s been living under false pretenses for the past 60 years. In other hands, this story might turn out as schmaltzy as the cruise ship singer, but Evison’s previous novels, The Revised Fundamentals of CaregivingWest of Here, and All About Lulu have established him as a master of the wistfully wise and humanely humorous. As Evison said in a recent interview, fiction is “an exercise in empathy.” (Claire)

Gold, Fame, Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins: Set in an increasingly plausible-seeming future in which drought has transformed Southern California into a howling wasteland, this debut novel by the author of the prize-winning story collection Battleborn finds two refugees of the water wars holed up in a starlet’s abandoned mansion in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Seeking lusher landscape, the pair head east, risking attack by patrolling authorities, roving desperadoes, and the unrelenting sun. (Michael)

 

Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell: Back when the working title for his new story collection was Cries for Help: Forty-Five Failed Novels, Padgett Powell proclaimed the book “unsalable.” He was wrong. It’s coming out as Cries for Help, Various, and it’s a reminder that with Padgett Powell, anything is possible. In “Joplin and Dickens,” for instance, the titular singer and writer meet as emotionally needy students in an American middle school. Surreal wackiness can’t disguise the fact that these 44 stories are grounded in such very real preoccupations as longing, loneliness, and cultural nostalgia. The authorial voice ranges from high to low, from cranky to tender. It’s the music of a virtuoso. (Bill)

The Marvels by Brian Selznick: You know a book is eagerly awaited when you witness an actual mob scene full of shoving and elbows for advance copies at BookExpo America. (In case there’s any doubt, I did witness this.) Selznick, the Caldecott-winning author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books, is best known for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, published in 2008. His newest work weaves together “two seemingly unrelated stories” told in two seemingly unrelated forms: a largely visual tale that begins with an 18th-century shipwreck, and a largely prose one that begins in London in 1990. (Elizabeth)

Scrapper by Matt Bell: Set in a re-imagined Detroit, Bell’s second novel follows Kelly, a “scrapper,” who searches for valuable materials in the city’s abandoned buildings. One day Kelly finds an orphaned boy, a discovery that forces Kelly to reexamine his own past and buried traumas. Advance reviews describe Scrapper as “harrowing” and “grim,” two adjectives that could also be used to describe Bell’s hypnotic debut, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. (Hannah)

 

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: For his sixth novel, Ron Rash returns to the beautiful but unforgiving Appalachian hills that have nourished most of his fiction and poetry. In Above the Waterfall, a sheriff nearing retirement and a young park ranger seeking to escape her past come together in a small Appalachian town bedeviled by poverty and crystal meth. A vicious crime will plunge the unlikely pair into deep, treacherous waters. Rash, a 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, is one of our undisputed Appalachian laureates, in company with Robert Morgan, Lee Smith, Fred Chappell, and Mark Powell. He has called this “a book about wonder, about how nature might sustain us.” (Bill)

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli: This young Mexican writer and translator was honored last year with a National Book Foundation “Five Under 35” Award for her 2013 debut, Faces in the Crowd. Her essay collection Sidewalks, published the same year, was also a critical favorite. Her second novel, The Story of My Teeth, is a story of stories, narrated by Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, a traveling auctioneer whose prize possession is a set of Marilyn Monroe’s dentures. Set in Mexico City, it was written in collaboration with Jumex Factory Staff — which is a story in and of itself. (Hannah)

Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno: The author of Hairstyles of the Damned and The Boy Detective Fails has taken an ambitious turn with Marvel and a Wonder. The book follows a Korean War vet living with his 16-year-old grandson on a farm in southern Indiana. They are given a beautiful quarterhorse, an unexpected gift that transforms their lives, but when the horse is stolen they embark on a quest to find the thieves and put their lives back together. (Janet)

 

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta: Okparanta was born in Nigeria and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. She emigrated to the United States at age 10, but her fiction often returns to Nigeria, painting a striking portrait of the contemporary nation. Her first book, the 2013 short story collection Happiness, Like Water, was shortlisted for many prizes and won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. Her debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, tells the story of two young girls who fall in love against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War. (Elizabeth)

 

After the Parade by Lori Ostlund: This assured debut tells the story of Aaron, an ESL teacher who decides, at age 40, to leave his lifelong partner, the older man who “saved him” from his Midwestern hometown. But in order to move on, Aaron has to take a closer look at his Midwestern past and find out if there’s anything worth salvaging. Readers may know Ostlund from her award-winning 2010 short story collection, The Bigness of the World. (Hannah)

 

 

The Hundred Year Flood by Matthew Salesses: Like the titular flood that churns through the second half of the novel, The Hundred Year Flood is a story of displacement. Salesses, whose non-fiction examines adoption and identity, tells the story of Tee, a Korean-American living in Prague in late 2001. The attacks of 9/11 are not mere subtext in this novel; Tee’s uncle commits suicide by plane, and the entire novel dramatizes how the past binds our present. “Anywhere he went he was the only Asian in Prague,” but Tee soon finds friendship in Pavel, a painter made famous during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and Katka, his wife. Tee becomes Pavel’s subject, and soon, Katka’s lover. “In the paintings, [Tee] was more real than life. His original self had been replaced:” Salesses novel dramatically documents how longing can turn, painfully, into love. (Nick R.)

Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek: An explosion has destroyed San Francisco. Twelve-year-old Dorian and his parents have survived it, but where is his older sister, Skyler? She never existed, according to Dorian’s parents. Post-incident America is a sinister place, where Muslims have been herded onto former Native American reservations and parents deny the existence of a boy’s sister. According to the publisher, Hrbek’s sophomore novel is “unlike anything you’ve read before — not exactly a thriller, not exactly sci-fi, not exactly speculative fiction, but rather a brilliant and absorbing adventure into the dark heart of…America.” Joining the Melville House family for his third book, Hrbek, whose story “Paternity” is in the current issue of Tin House, may be poised to be the next indie breakout. (Sonya)

Dryland by Sara Jaffe: Jaffe has lived many lives it seems, one as a guitarist for punk band Erase Errata, another as a founding editor of New Herring Press (which just reissued a bang-up edition of Lynne Tillman’s Weird Fucks with paintings by Amy Sillman). Proof of Jaffe’s life as a fiction-writer can be found online, too, including gems like “Stormchasers.” This fall marks the publication of Jaffe’s first novel, Dryland, a coming-of-age tale set in the ’90s that depicts a girl whose life is defined by absences, including and especially that of her not-talked about older brother, until she has a chance to find him and herself. (Anne)

Hotel and Vertigo by Joanna Walsh: British critic, journalist, and fiction writer Walsh kickstarted 2014 with the #readwomen hashtag phenomenon, declaring it the year to read only women. It seems that 2015 is the year to publish them, and specifically Walsh, who has two books coming out this fall. Hotel is “part memoir part meditation” that draws from Walsh’s experience as a hotel reviewer — and that explores “modern sites of gathering and alienation.” The inimitable Dorothy Project will publish Vertigo, a book of loosely linked stories that channels George Perec and Christine Brooke-Rose, and which Amina Cain claims, “quietly subvert(s) the hell out of form.” (Anne)

October:
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: Garth is a contributing editor to the site, where he has written masterful essays over nearly a decade, while teaching and putting out his novella Field Guide to the North American Family. He is a keen and perfect reader of novels, and of critics — he told us about Roberto Bolaño. We trust him to steer us through difficult books. (He is, additionally, a champion punner.) When his debut novel, a 900-pager written over six years, was purchased by Knopf, we felt not only that it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, but that it couldn’t happen to a more serious, a more bona fide person of letters. City on Fire is the result of his wish to write a novel that took in “9/11, the 1977 blackout, punk rock, the fiscal crisis,” which explains the 900 pages. Read the opening lines, evoking a modern Infernohere. I think we’re in for something special. (Lydia)

Slade House by David Mitchell: Slade House started out with “The Right Sort,” a short story Mitchell published via 280 tweets last summer as publicity for The Bone Clocks. That story, which was published in full, exclusively here at The Millions, is about a boy and his mother attending a party to which they’d received a mysterious invitation. The story “ambushed” him, said Mitchell, and, before he knew it, it was the seed of a full-fledged novel, seemingly about years of mysterious parties at the same residence that we can assume are connected to each other and to characters we’ve already met. The book is said to occupy the same universe as The Bone Clocks and, by extension, Mitchell’s increasingly interconnected body of work. (Janet)

M Train by Patti Smith: The follow-up to Just Kids, Smith’s much-beloved (and National Book Award-winning) 2010 memoir about her youthful friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe as they made their way in 1960s New York City. In a recent interview, Smith said M Train is “not a book about the past so much. It’s who I am, what I do, what I’m thinking about, what I read and the coffee I drink. The floors I pace. So we’ll see. I hope people like it.” Oh Patti, we know we’re gonna like it. (Hannah)

Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon: Hemon has lived in the U.S. since the war in his native Bosnia made it impossible for him to return from what should have been a temporary visit. So he came to his role as the U.N.’s first writer-in-residence in its 70-year history with a lot of baggage. Given unprecedented access to the organization’s inner working — from the general assembly to the security council — his book portrays a deeply flawed but vitally necessary institution. (Janet)

A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk: Nobel laureate Pamuk’s ninth novel follows Mevlut, an Istanbul street vendor. Beginning in the 1970s, the book covers four decades of urban life, mapping the city’s fortunes and failures alongside Mevlut’s, and painting a nostalgic picture of Pamuk’s beloved home. (Hannah)

 

 

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell: In Once Upon a River, Campbell introduced us to the wily and wise-beyond-her-years Margo Crane, a modern-day female Huck Finn taking to the river in search of her lost mother. The strong and stubborn protagonists that the Michigan author excels at writing are back in her third short story collection. The working-class women in these stories are grief-addled brides, phlebotomists discovering their sensuality, and vengeful abused wives, all drawn with Campbell’s signature dark humor and empathy. (Tess)

100 Years of the Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore: For 100 years, the Best American series has collected the strongest short stories, from Ernest Hemingway to Sherman Alexie. As editor, Lorrie Moore, a virtuoso of the genre herself, combed through more than 2,000 stories to select the 41 featured in this anthology. But this is not just a compilation, it’s also an examination of how the genre has evolved. Series editor Heidi Pitlor recounts the literary trends of the 20th century, including the rise of Depression-era Southern fiction to the heyday of the medium in the 1980s. The result is collection featuring everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Lauren Groff. (Tess)

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: The author of March and Caleb’s Crossing, known for her abilities to bring history to life, has turned her attention to David King of Israel. Taking the famous stories of his shephardic childhood, defeat of Goliath, and troubled rule as king, Brooks fills in the gaps and humanizes the legend in a saga of family, faith, and power. (Janet)

 

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann: With a title borrowed from the iconic Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann explores disparate points of view in this collection of short stories. The title story follows a retired judge going about his day, not realizing it’s his last. Other stories peek into the life of a nun, a marine, and a mother and son whose Christmas is marked by an unexpected disappearance. (Hannah)

 

The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray: Murray’s 2010 novel Skippy Dies earned the Irishman worldwide acclaim as a writer enviably adept at both raucous humor and bittersweet truth. His new novel, perhaps the funniest thing to come out of the Irish economic collapse, follows Claude, a low-level bank employee who, while his employers drive the country steadily towards ruin, falls in with a struggling novelist intent on making Claude’s life worthy of telling. (Janet)

 

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra’s first novel about war-torn Chechnya during the Second Chechen War, was not only a New York Times bestseller, it was also a longlist selection for the National Book Award and on a bevy of best-of lists for 2013. His second book is a collection of short stories that, like his novel, span a number of years, and take place in the same part of the world. There’s a 1930s Soviet censor laboring beneath Leningrad, for example, as well as a chorus of women who, according to the jacket copy, “recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town.” The characters in these stories are interconnected, proving that Marra is as ambitious with the short form as he is with the novel. (Edan)

Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe: Six years after Sui Shi came out in his native Japan, the 1994 Nobel Prize laureate’s latest is arriving in an English translation. In the book, which features Oe’s recurring protagonist Kogito Choko, a novelist attempts to fictionalize his father’s death by drowning at sea. Because the memory was traumatic, and because Choko’s family refuses to talk about his father, the writer begins to confuse his facts, eventually growing so frustrated he shelves his novel altogether. His quest is hopeless, or so it appears, until he meets an avant-garde theater troupe, which provides him with the impetus to keep going. (Thom)

Submission by Michel Houellebecq: This much-discussed satirical novel by the provocative French author is, as Adam Shatz wrote for the LRB, a “melancholy tribute to the pleasure of surrender.” In this case, the surrender is that of the French intelligentsia to a gently authoritarian Islamic government. The novel has been renounced as Islamophobic, defended against these charges in language that itself runs the gamut from deeply Islamophobic to, er, Islam-positive, and resulted in all kinds of moral-intellectual acrobatics and some very cute titles (“Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées” or “Slouching towards Mecca”). (Lydia)

Golden Age by Jane Smiley: The third volume in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy follows the descendants of a hard-striving Iowa farming family through the waning years of the last century to the present day. The first two installments covered the years 1920-52 (in Some Luck) and 1953-86 (in Early Warning), mixing lively characters and sometimes improbable plot twists with gently left-of-center political analysis of the American century. With characters who are serving in Iraq and working in New York finance, expect more of the same as Smiley wraps up her ambitious three-book project. (Michael)

Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories by Audrey Niffenegger: From a contemporary master of spooky stories comes an anthology of the best ghost stories. Niffenegger’s curation shows how the genre has developed from the 19th century to now, with a focus on hauntings. Each story comes with an introduction from her, whether it’s a story by a horror staple like Edgar Allan Poe or the unexpected like Edith Wharton. Also look for a Niffenegger original, “A Secret Life with Cats.” (Tess)

 

The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor: In Cantor’s previous novel, Margot, Anne Frank’s sister has survived World War II, and is living under an assumed identity in America. Cantor’s new book once again blends fact and fiction, this time delving into the lives of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans executed for spying during the Cold War. The day Ethel was arrested, her two young children were left with a neighbor, and in The Hours Count Cantor fictionalizes this neighbor, and we understand the Rosenbergs and their story through the eyes of this young, naïve woman. Christina Baker Kline calls the novel “Taut, atmospheric and absorbing…” (Edan)

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell: As a teenager, the Marquis de Lafayette was an officer in the Continental Army at the right hand of George Washington. Returning home to his native France after the war, he continued to socialize with his friends Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, and never lost his place in America’s affections. The author of Assassination Vacation tells the true story of the young French aristocrat who inserted himself into the American Revolution, his long and eventful life on both sides of the Atlantic, and his triumphant return to America at the end of his life. (Janet)

The Early Stories of Truman Capote: As any teacher can tell you, fiction written by 14-year-olds is not something you’d typically pay money to read. (It’s hard enough to find people you can pay to read the stuff, at that.) But what about fiction written by a 14-year-old who started writing seriously at age 11? And one who’d go on to write some of the most memorable stories of the modern age? That certainly changes things, and that’s the case at hand with The Early Stories of Truman Capote, which is said to contain 17 pieces written during the author’s teenage years. “When [Capote] was 23, he used to joke that he looked like he was 12,” journalist Anuschka Roshani told Die Zeit after she had discovered the forgotten stories in the New York Public Library. “But when he was 12 he wrote like others did aged 40.” (Nick M.)

Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel: There’s a good chance you’ve encountered Michel’s stories, scattered far and wide across the Internet, and featured in the most reputable and disreputable journals alike. And if not his stories, then perhaps one of his many editorial or side projects, as co-founder of Gigantic, online editor of Electric Literature and, (delightfully) as creator of the Monsters of Literature trading cards. Michel’s stories are often an uncanny combination of sinister and funny, tender and sad. Laura van den Berg calls them “mighty surrealist wonders, mordantly funny and fiercely intelligent,” and many of them will soon be released together in Michel’s first story collection Upright Beasts. (Anne)

November:
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill: In 2012, Gaitskill read for a student audience from the novel-in-progress The Mare, which was then described as “an adult fairy-tale unsuitable for children’s ears.” The clichéd publicity blurb gives one pause — “the story of a Dominican girl, the white woman who introduces her to riding, and the horse who changes everything for her” — but also, for this Gaitskill fan, induces eagerness to see what will surely be Gaitskill’s intimate and layered take on this familiar story trope. The young girl, Velveteen, is a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn who spends time with a married couple upstate and the horses down the road. Drug addiction, race, and social-class collisions make up at least some of the layers here. (Sonya)

The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson: Robinson is one of the most beloved contemporary American writers, and she’s also one of our most cogent voices writing about religion and faith today. “Robinson’s genius is for making indistinguishable the highest ends of faith and fiction,” Michelle Orange wrote of Robinson’s last novel, Lila, and this talent is on display across her new essay collection, 14 essays that meditate on the complexities of Christianity in America today. (Elizabeth)

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry: IMPAC-winner Barry — who we’ve interviewed here at The Millions — follows John Lennon on a fictional trip to Ireland. In the story, which takes place in 1978, Lennon sets out to find an island he purchased nine years earlier, in a bid to get the solitude he needs to break out of a creative rut. His odyssey appears to be going according to plan — until, that is, he meets a charming, shape-shifting taxi driver. (Thom)

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: The Big Green Tent — at 592 pages and dramatizing a panorama of life in the USSR in the 1950s through the story of three friends — is a Russian novel, at the same time that it is a “Russian novel.”  An orphaned poet, a pianist, and a photographer each in his own way fights the post-Joseph Stalin regime; you might guess that the results are less than feel-good. This may be the Big Book of the year, and Library Journal is calling it “A great introduction to readers new to Ulitskaya,” who, along with being the most popular novelist in Russia, is an activist and rising voice of moral authority there. For more on Ulitsakya, read Masha Gessen’s 2014 profile. (Sonya)

Hotels of North America by Rick Moody: For writers both motivated and irked by online reviews, the comment-lurking hero of Moody’s sixth novel should hit close to home. Reginald Edward Morse writes reviews on RateYourLodging.com, yet they aren’t just about the quality of hotel beds and room service — but his life. Through his comments, he discusses his failings, from his motivational speaking career to his marriage to his relationship with his daughter. When Morse disappears, these comments become the trail of breadcrumbs Moody follows to find him in this clever metafictional take on identity construction. (Tess)

Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving: Although Irving feels a little out of vogue these days, his novels have inflected the tenor of modern American literature — open a novel and see a glimpse of T.S. Garp, a flash of Owen Meany, a dollop of Bogus Trumper. His 14th novel is based, confusingly, on an original screenplay for a movie called Escaping Maharashtra, and takes us to Mexico and the Philippines. (Lydia)

 

 

Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos: When Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, passed away in 2013, he left behind Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise, a novel he’d been working on for more than 12 years. In it, the author imagined a fictitious manuscript containing correspondence between Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley, the artist Dorothy Tennant, and Mark Twain. In a virtuoso performance, Hijuelos displays his ability to use a high 19th-century writing style while preserving the individual voices that made each of his subjects so unique. (Nick M.)

A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham: Pulitzer Prize-winning Cunningham, best known for The Hours, a creative take on Mrs. Dalloway that was itself adapted into a prize-winning movie starring Nicole Kidman and a prosthetic nose, has chosen a new adaptation project: fairy tales. In A Wild Swan, all the familiar fairy tale characters are present, but clearly modernized — Jack of beanstalk fame lives in his mother’s basement, while the Beast stands in line at the convenience store. Their stories receive similar updates and include all the questions and moments our childhood tales politely skimmed over. (Kaulie)

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco: The Italian writer, best known in the U.S. for The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, takes on modern Italy’s bete noire — Benito Mussolini — in Numero Zero. Moving deftly from 1945 to 1992 and back again, the book shows both the death of the dictator and the odyssey of a hack writer in Colonna, who learns of a bizarre conspiracy theory that says Il Duce survived his own murder. Though its plot is very different, the book pairs naturally with Look Who’s Back, the recent German novel about a time-traveling Adolf Hitler. (Thom)

The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley’s fifth novel, the well-received Clever Girl, was released just over a year ago, but she’s already back with another delicately crafted novel of generational change in an English family. In The Past, four grown siblings — three sisters and their brother — return to their grandparents’ house for three sticky summer weeks. While there, they face collected childhood memories, the possibility of having to sell the house, and each other. Their families cause considerable chaos as well — the sisters dislike their brother’s wife, while one sister’s boyfriend’s son attempts to seduce her niece. (Kaulie)

January:
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Cantor’s first novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, garnered a devoted following for its madcap, time-traveling chutzpah. Her second novel, Good on Paper, also published by Melville House, sounds a bit different — but just as enticing. According to the jacket copy, it’s about “a perpetual freelancer who gets an assignment that just might change her life,” and there are echoes of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Edan)

 

 

Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens: Reportage by László Krasznahorkai: Nine out of 10 doctors agree: Hungarian fiction is the cure for positivity, and few doses are as potent as the ones written by Krasznahorkai, recent winner of the Man Booker International Prize. “If gloom, menace and entropy are your thing,” Larry Rohter wrote in his profile of the author for The New York Times, “then Laszlo is your man.” And our interview with Krasznahorkai garnered the headline “Anticipate Doom.” Ominous for Chinese officials, then, that Krasznahorkai’s latest effort can be described not as a work of fiction, but instead as a travel memoir, or a series of reports filed while journeying through the Asian country. Because if there’s one guy you want to write about your country, it’s someone Susan Sontag described as the “master of the apocalypse.” (Nick M.)

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: In Hunt’s fictions, imagination anchors the real and sometimes calls mutiny. Her tales earned her a spot in Tin House’s coterie of “Fantastic Women,” and The Believer has called her “a master of beautiful delusions.” Whether the delusion involves believing oneself to be a mermaid or a wife who becomes a deer at night or the eccentric life and ideas of the oft-overlooked inventor Nikola Tesla (who among other things, harbored pigeons in New York City hotel rooms), Hunt delivers them with what an essence akin to magic. Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s third novel, promises more in this vein. It’s a gothic ghost story, involving two orphaned sisters, channeling spirits, and an enigmatic journey across New York State. (Anne)

February:
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster — nine million copies and still selling strong — Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio…there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire)

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story — “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi — and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures.  Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya)

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: In his fourth novel, Lowboy author Wray moves out of the confines of New York City, tracing the history of an Eastern European family not unlike his own. Moving all the way from fin-de-siècle Moravia up to the present day, the book tracks the exploits of the Toula family, who count among their home cities Vienna, Berlin, and finally New York City. As the story progresses, the family struggles to preserve their greatest treasure, an impenetrable theory with the potential to upend science as we know it. For a sense of Wray’s eye, take note that Znojmo, the Moldovan town from which the family hails, is the gherkin capital of Austria-Hungary. (Thom)

Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: Bock’s first novel, Beautiful Children, was a New York Times bestseller and won the Sue Kaufman prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters. His second novel, Alice & Oliver, which takes place in New York City in the year 1994, is about a young mother named Alice Culvert, who falls ill with leukemia, and her husband Oliver, who is “doing his best to support Alice, keep their childcare situation stabilized, handle insurance companies, hold off worst case scenario nightmares, and just basically not lose his shit.” Joshua Ferris writes, “I was amazed that such a heartbreaking narrative could also affirm, on every page, why we love this frustrating world and why we hold on to it for as long as we can.” Richard Price calls it “a wrenchingly powerful novel.” (Edan)

More from The Millions:

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Harper Lee’s Hullabaloo

There’s been an incredible amount of both excitement and controversy ever since Harper Lee’s publisher announced the upcoming publication of Go Set a Watchman, the reclusive author’s second novel. But in a piece for Ploughshares Cathe Shubert wonders “Why not marvel at what all this hullabaloo in the news really signifies: that books still matter, deeply, to the American public–especially books that spark dialogue about interracial relations, justice, and, as Atticus would say, walking in another person’s shoes.”

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR